Hit­ting pay dirt

Gar­den­ing can be costly be­fore be­com­ing fun and fruit­ful.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA DAMROSCH

I once had a friend whose gar­den stole his wal­let and took over his life. In­spired by the great gar­dens he’d seen in England, he built a re­flect­ing pool sur­rounded by brick­walled gar­den rooms. Soon the pool was dot­ted with wa­terlilies, the walls clothed with flow­er­ing vines and the rooms re­dec­o­rated each year with high-main­te­nance flower beds, burst­ing with color. To my eye, it was money well spent.

Gar­den eco­nom­ics are tricky. They re­quire an ac­count­ing sys­tem that mea­sures not just the cost but also the gar­dener’s ex­pec­ta­tions, and whether they are met.

A neigh­bor who got into veg­etable gar­den­ing to save money was dis­mayed that ini­tially the money he and his wife spent was more than they saved on food, even though they were very com­pe­tent gar­den­ers. But she told a re­veal­ing story.

Yes, she ad­mit­ted, they’d made hasty pur­chases as tem­po­rary so­lu­tions. Work and fam­ily com­mit­ments kept them from fin­ish­ing their deer fence, so they’d used cheap plastic fenc­ing un­til they had more time. But that came in handy later dur­ing a por­cu­pine emer­gency. The rav­en­ous crea­tures were de­stroy­ing the rasp­ber­ries and a pre­cious pear tree. Sur­round­ing both with the plastic fence saved the day. Sim­i­larly, a waste­fully large roll of float­ing row cover, bought for in­sect pro­tec­tion, proved es­sen­tial for cre­at­ing a warmer space for all their young seedlings in chilly spring weather.

Af­ter a while, a gar­dener ac­cu­mu­lates enough gear that new pur­chases be­come rare. But it takes judg­ment to get to that point quickly. Start­ing with ba­sic tools such as a shovel, spade, rake, trowel and hoe is the first step, but only if they’re well made and just right for your own use — sturdy, but not so heavy that you come to hate to use them. Strong, well-at­tached han­dles are a must. You can prob­a­bly put to­gether the whole col­lec­tion from yard sales.

In the years to come, you’ll be tempted by cheap plastic ver­sions of ba­sic gar­den stuff. Be­ware of flimsy plant sup­ports and rick­ety lit­tle wheel­bar­rows. Easy-to-as­sem­ble com­post bins, raised beds and cold frames may be even eas­ier for the forces of na­ture to take apart, whether they be wind, the ex­pan­sion of icy soil or hun­gry bears.

Ticky-tacky green­houses too small to hold much more than you and a few pot­ted plants are rarely worth the price.

Some of these items might be use­ful in the short term, as the plastic fence was for my neigh­bors, but the struc­tural in­tegrity of solid wood or metal will out­live that of plastic and will age more grace­fully. Plastic is un­fix­able when it cracks or bends, and ugly when its color fades in the sun.

Tak­ing care of your equip­ment

is good eco­nom­ics, too. I’m em­bar­rassed to think of how many times I’ve left my spade or hand pruners out­doors and failed to tip my wheel­bar­row against a wall so that it doesn’t fill up with rain. Bring­ing tools un­der cover af­ter use, clean­ing dirt off them and oil­ing them are all ways to stave off rust.

Seeds are not ex­pen­sive when you con­sider what one seed will yield, and you can col­lect and save them for next year’s crop. Peren­nial flow­ers are costly but can be di­vided or prop­a­gated from cut­tings to make more.

Gar­den­ers are al­ways choos­ing be­tween time and money. If you must pay to have some of the work done, the qual­ity of the food might still make grow­ing it worth­while. If you can do it your­self, it might save you the cost of weight train­ing at the gym.

Ul­ti­mately, the most im­por­tant prin­ci­ple of gar­de­nomics is the bal­ance sheet that na­ture pro­vides. Left alone, a land­scape will per­pet­u­ate it­self, as plants and an­i­mals re­turn to the soil in a fer­tile, self-sus­tain­ing cy­cle of life and death. If you turn your weeds, grass clip­pings and other or­ganic wastes into rich com­post, you won’t need bags of fer­til­izer. Make leaf mold by let­ting piles of au­tumn leaves break down, and you won’t need bags of mulch.

A new gar­den with poor soil might re­quire store­bought amend­ments, but by re­plac­ing the fer­til­ity you take from the soil each year, you will soon bal­ance the books. You’re fol­low­ing a man­age­ment sys­tem that’s al­ready in place.

In the decades af­ter he planted it, my old friend has loved his walled gar­den, as have the mul­ti­tudes of vis­i­tors he has in­vited in. And my por­cu­pine-plagued neigh­bor now says: “Af­ter gar­den­ing for a while, I know how many seeds I need. I’ve found out what works and what does not.” Both gar­dens have more than paid their way.

Arkansas De­mo­cat-Gazette/NIKKI DAWES

Arkansas De­mo­cat-Gazette/NIKKI DAWES

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